News & Opinion » Featured story

The Look of Rock

John Perry: Rochester's rock 'n' roll poster boy


A pious cleric casts a demon's shadow. A skeletal Santa no longer shakes like a bowl full of jelly. An evil clown glowers while smoking five coffin nails at once. The unassuming, yet menacing, grill of a classic Merc sits... waiting. Frankenstein's green face is all twisted up in frustration. Skulls and skulls and skulls galore.

            This is a glimpse into the mind of Rochester-based poster artist John Perry. And this is the look of rock.

            The current ratio of substance to appearance in rock is clearly out of whack. There's more to the music than long hair; leather; sneering, leering bravado; bad behavior; odd predilections; and phallic overtones. The mainstream music marketing machine has molded those elements into a tired cliché.

            But just because it looks rock doesn't mean it rocks.

            Underground poster artists put the music first, making posters that reflect a band's sound, not just its image.

            For the past five years, Rochester eyeballs have been assailed, and local bands championed (including mine), by the bold colors, sharp lines, and quirky humor in Perry's poster art. It's a medium he stumbled into out of necessity.

            "I was in a three-piece band called Frijerater," Perry says. "We had to promote a show, so I drew a poster for it." This first poster featured a guy brushing his teeth with a bar of soap.

            Perry was amply qualified --- he has a bachelor's degree in fine arts from SUNY Brockport. Musicians soon picked up on what he was putting down and demand grew. For Perry, poster art was a welcome vent.

            "I always drew these pictures and never had an outlet for them," he says. "There were all these characters and weird things. I'd never finish them or make them into paintings. When the poster thing came along, I'd throw one of those images in, color it, add text, and it was done. It just worked."


Perry was first hipped to the medium after seeing work by artists Frank Kozik, The Coop, and Derek Hess.

            The gig-poster-art scene "was kind of dead, and these guys brought the scene back," Perry says.

            Jim Malley, who deals with posters of all types at his shop, Mercury Posters, on Sumner Park, refers to the current poster movement as a "revolution." This new group of artists has "picked up the torch" first lit during the heyday of The Fillmore, Avalon Ballroom, and Haight-Asbury scenes by artists like Stanley Mouse, Phil Cushway, Wes Wilson, and Rick Griffin.

            Those artists broke the "30-30 rule" --- the old graphic-design maxim that dictates a poster should be readable from 30 feet away by a person traveling 30 miles per hour --- with their flowing, ornate designs for bands like The Grateful Dead, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and others. Helpful facts like a concert's date and location often got buried beneath a sea of psychedelia.

            For some reason, functionality trumped creativity on the poster scene after its 1960s boom. Malley isn't the only one who suspects corporate rock had something to do with that. Though there's clearly been no shortage of bands, artistic rock posters didn't reach the forefront again until the early '90s.

            As with the artists of the first movement, the eye-catching beauty of Perry's show bills often supercedes their function. And bands and fans couldn't be happier.

What does rock look like? What colors best suit a loud guitar? What images are truly punk, not poser?

            It's up to the poster artist's dementia, humor, and interpretation of the band.

            "People either like the artist and the artwork, or they like the band and accept the artist," Malley says.

            "A good poster gets people who didn't know the band to check out the show," says Perry. "That's the whole intent of it."

            Allusions to a band's sound and attitude run from the painfully obvious to the abstract. A Perry poster for the punk band Dead Blue Hand features a dead, blue hand giving the finger. Another design, for Cleveland punkers The Unknown, stars Sesame Street's Burt as a severed, shrunken head, his eyes and mouth sewn shut. Some of his posters are even a little antagonistic, like The Grinders' poster with a cigar-smoking pig and the caption "no vegetarian can resist bacon."

            "He's awesome," Grinders guitarist Todd Dentico says of Perry. "He totally knows how to capture how we act like idiots on stage."

            "I try to incorporate something into the poster that represents the band," Perry says. "If the band doesn't have a name that coincides with an image, I just do something on my own. It just has to be eye-catching, because that's the whole point. It's a lot of fun to do new bands, because that can open up a shitload of new ideas."

            Bands like Dead Blue Hand and Eddie Nebula and The Plague immediately conjure up images, but present an obstacle with repeat performances. "It's a challenge to come up with a new image for the same band time and time again," Perry says. "But some of my best work happens then."

            Perry approaches his work with virtually no malice of forethought. "I don't really know what I'm trying to say," he says. "I just have a warped sense of humor."

            Some rock-poster artists incorporate and manipulate pre-existing images in their work. Perry occasionally uses photographs, but otherwise creates all the madness himself.

            "I draw the design, scan it into the computer in black-and-white, color it, twist it, and add all the type," he says. "If I use a photo, I try to manipulate it enough to where it's something different, or put it in a context where it doesn't come from --- something to make it my own."

            "John's got a great take and humor interlaced in his work," says Malley. "He always seems to have an angle that makes you think. You think a little bit, then you get it. It's not obvious; the humor is imbedded."

            "These artists are picking a lot of the underground bands, when it's probably a year before we really hear about them," Malley continues. "It's a perfect fit. The edgier style works with the edgier bands before they get all polished and slickened up by their record labels."

            Unlike promotional materials hashed out by ad agencies, gig posters are created by artists who actually listen to the bands --- an artistic endorsement, if you will, and a true labor of love.

            "I've gone to see bands I knew nothing about at the time, like Steel Pole Bathtub and The Fiascos," Perry says, "just because the poster was cool."


"A lot of the posters I do are for friends who have bands that I like," Perry says. "I want to do my part to help them out."

            Bands who want a Perry poster simply give him a call or e-mail him. His contact information is posted on the website, where the curious can see thousands of gig posters created by hundreds of artists worldwide. The site's hosts have picked Perry's work as their "Poster of the Week" several times. He's currently working on his own site.

            Thanks to the gigposters site and word of mouth, Perry's reputation is growing beyond Rochester. National acts such as Guided By Voices, Frank Black and the Catholics, The Frogs, Agent Orange, and Electric Frankenstein have caught wind of Perry's talent and requested posters for gigs here and elsewhere.

            One of Perry's most successful designs --- a bee screaming into a microphone --- made it onto the Bug Jar's Bug Bowl festival poster. Reactions to the image have been huge.

            "We brought a bunch of our regular t-shirts to a beer festival in Honeoye Falls," says Bug Jar owner Bobby T. "Everyone was like, 'Where's the screamin' bee? We want the bee.' We could have sold a gazillion of them."

            The success of artists like Derek Hess in Cleveland and Frank Kozik, who's worked in the Austin and San Francisco, grew along with the music scenes in those cities. Their art followed the bands themselves onto the national stage. Perry is doing his part in Rochester, and wishes local bands could see beyond the city limits.

            "The problem with the local scene is it never goes anywhere," Perry says. "The bands never get out of Rochester. I don't know if it's the bands themselves, lack of promotion, fear of going to another town, or what. If you think about it, a band that's here is central to any location. But most bands get into the club scene, they make it, get a following, and then it just stops."

            "If I do a poster a band likes, they'll put it up all over town," Perry says. "The more that poster goes up, the more it gets seen. That's the payoff."

            And it's the only payoff. Perry works pro bono (he makes ends meet as a commercial screen printer). "The only payment I get is to see those posters posted," he says.

            Ironically, if a poster is really popular, it doesn't get a chance to do its job. Mercury Posters' doorway serves as a haven for posters promoting shows coming to town, but Perry's posters don't hang there for long.

            "As soon as one gets hung out here, it's gone," says Malley. "And that's a big piece of flattery."

            Perry's not averse to making a little green off his work, but he's in no hurry to cash in. "If it got to that point, that'd be great," he says. "But if it never does, I'll still continue to do them.

            "Artistically, I'd like to get back into canvases," he continues. "Who knows? Maybe a couple of years down the road I'll go into teaching. But if I can just continue to draw and paint, then take the weekends to hang with my wife, that would work, too."

            Perry is flattered, if not a little blown away, by the reactions to his work.

            "I'll tell you, it's wonderful to be at a show watching people taking my posters down and leaving with them," he says. "I used to do the same when I was a teenager --- still do, to some extent. Only now, the people are taking me home --- and that just rules."